Reflections from Net Impact 2019: Understanding how to apply my MIT education

A MITASC story contributed by Kelly Wu

This past October, I and some other MIT students had the opportunity to fly to Detroit for a weekend and attend the 2019 Net Impact Conference at the TCF center. Although this convention center is generally known for hosting the largest auto show in the U.S. (Detroit is America’s Motor City after all), that weekend it brought together students, professionals and movement founders for a weekend of discussions centered around making change.

The 2019 Net Impact Conference at the TFC Center in Detroit

The 2019 Net Impact Conference at the TFC Center in Detroit

Here’s a bit more about the organization Net Impact: Net Impact is a global leadership development organization with more than 400 chapters in universities, cities and companies. Within these chapters, members focus conversations on increasing their impacts in society, and the overall goal of the organization is to “help new leaders broaden their thinking, build their networks, and scale their impact.” Net Impact seems similar to other professional development organizations in that it encourages leadership and network building, but is different in that it isn’t about how to have success in a specific career; rather, it calls upon a broader human drive to make a difference. Because of this unique scope, personally, I think Net Impact helped me think about how I can take my specific skills and interests and really apply them to society to make positive change.

Diverse Changemakers and How to Make a Difference

An important perspective I learned from the conference was the diversity of ways in which people can create change. Talks from startup and non-profit founders, such as Mandeep Patel, a recent UT Austin graduate who founded a Tesla ridesharing company to help workers avoid business flights, inspired me to rethink my post-graduation options. Their paths made me realize there are many different ways in which people can/are making a real impact in society. In fact, I’ve realized that there is no right way to go to maximize my impact; rather, it should be a combination of my skills, interests, and character that leads me to where I can challenge the status quo/introduce society to new ventures.

Kelly Wu and other MITASC members at the Net Impact Conference 2019

Kelly Wu and other MITASC members at the Net Impact Conference 2019

For specific examples of how differently people can impact society, I’ll talk about some more speakers I learned from. Net Impact invited singer-songwriter MILCK and Krista Suh to speak for the closing keynote of the weekend. Krista is a founder of the pussyhat movement (these are the knitted pink hats that were often spotted in the women’s marches of 2016), and MILCK wrote the song “Quiet”, which went viral during these same marches. Together, they emphasized the importance of creativity in making change, and how if you are passionate about an idea and really believe in it, it can spread to great heights. It was very inspirational to hear from these people whose individual actions had such a great influence on a global movement. Also in the same conference however, I was able to listen to panels with industry professionals making a difference through corporate responsibility roles. These people included the corporate responsibility director of Intel (Suzanne Fallender), Citigroup’s senior VP of corporate sustainability (Davida Heller), and a previous director of sustainability at Facebook/Green Energy Czar of Google (Bill Weihl). Before the conference, I had been curious about how companies were beginning to consider their environmental impact, including in terms of resource conservation and carbon footprint reduction. Listening to these panels allowed me to realize that in our current capitalist society, for sustainability to be factored into company decision making, there must be a very good economic or policy pitch for it. However, companies are finding ways to make this happen, especially as consumers are becoming more aware of their purchasing choices and power. In their words, it’s “becoming about the stakeholders, not just the shareholders.” And behind this broader trend, the speakers are the ones knee-deep in drafting company policies and goals. Hearing them speak really helped me see the possible impact of an industry sustainability career.

Ideation and the Power of People

Finally, I had the great opportunity to voice some of my own ideas and thoughts specifically on the issues of energy through an interactive business pitch session hosted by Shell, a sponsor of Net Impact. The first half of the session was devoted to ideating solutions to several 21st century energy challenges, such as how to encourage a wider adoption of electric transportation of all kinds, and how to intervene with supply chains for scaling up alternative fuel production. The second half involved teaming up with other attendees to refine one idea and create a business pitch for it. My team and I ended up pitching an idea for developing microgrids in lower-income neighborhoods in New York City using crowdfunding strategies to approach businesses in the area that need stable electricity. Through this session, I was able to meet and connect with others who are thinking about energy problems, including an MBA graduate in Chicago and a journalism student at Ithaca college. This activity reinforced my belief that the best solutions to complex societal problems can be found when people of very different backgrounds come together and contribute their own insights and experiences. A bonus—I met some great people and got to hear their perspectives on the future of energy.

At the end of a weekend filled with big ideas and inspirational speakers, (not to mention a chance to take a break from the MIT bubble to explore a new city), Net Impact had really broadened my view of how exactly I can make a difference in the issues I care about (clean energy, resource sustainability, climate change). It had also inspired me with the stories of many who are already changing their parts of society. Whether you are a student, professor, or other professional, I encourage you to think about where your skills intersect with the issues you care about, and then how you can harness this to create change in society. Think broad, and think big!

This public reflection was produced as part of the work of the MIT Action Sustainability Corps. Learn more about MITASC here.